Marriage matters

Thinking of this idea of marriage as about personal development prompted me to look at a consultation paper written for the Home Office in 1979 called ‘Marriage Matters’. It is an interesting document as a reflection of its time – I can recall being part of a working group within the Family Welfare Association, for whom I then worked, that constructed a response to it. I found the following paragraphs:

“The task of forming a person’s concept of himself in his relationships with other people increasingly devolves upon himself. His position is less defined by his role, status, occupation or economic circumstances than ever before. The development of the individual has emerged as an increasingly important objective – of social policy as well as individuals, who translate it into a wide variety of aspirations and claims. Man’s development and maturity become more necessary as technology advances; human qualities of adaptability, curiosity and imagination become vital resources with which to cope with social and technical change. The more elementary economic and material needs are satisfied, the more central does personal growth become.”

Our evidence and experience confirm the thesis that personal development and satisfaction are core values underlying contemporary expectations of marriage. An example comes from the work of Gorer, a social anthropologist, who repeated his 1950 study 20 years later. From a careful survey, he found that in the earlier study the emphasis was upon partners being efficient executants of their roles as bread-winner and housewife; in 1970, the emphasis had shifted – the important thing was that husbands and wives should like one another……….. Though class differences remained, the qualities looked for in each other by contemporary married couples were those that had to do with their maintenance and development as persons; in the 1950 study what was looked for by couples was complementarity of roles which would sustain a family and help it to hold its own economically and socially.” 

All this was setting out a context for my entry into work with marriages, a context that was largely unquestioned both in relation to my own marriage and to those of people with whom I worked. It fitted with the fact that in work we did not take the reconciliation task too seriously – we thought the enterprise was out of date, clung to by magistrates who could not face the ‘real world’, a world in which divorce was seen as often a positive step towards freedom, life and possibility. Not that we did not try hard, captured secretly no doubt by the same romance of hearts re-united and moral world restored that seemed still to hold the magistrates in thrall. Mostly our scepticism about the possibility of reconciliation sheltered us from the disappointment that normally characterised these referrals. The job was more usually about how to help people to separate. In this context, separation was framed positively. Hope derived not from the possibility of a mended marriage but from the idea that:

“a potential for change  is often inherent in marital disharmony” (Marriage Matters para 2.6)

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